I don’t want any trouble, and certainly not online. The trouble is, the Internet won’t leave me alone. Websites are constantly tracking me with little files called cookies, criminals are trying to swipe my digital identity with spam, and online information brokers are selling the story of my life to anybody with a valid credit card.
No wonder there’s a ready market for online privacy protection tools. I’ve gone over four of the coolest, including browser plug-ins that block tracking cookies, a subscription service that helps conceal your possibly embarrassing past, and a program that can make you virtually anonymous online.
Cookies, of course, are little bits of data inserted into your browser by websites and advertising companies, enabling them to keep track of the sites you visit and the stuff you search for. Say you visited a few automotive sites, and picked up an ad cookie along the way. Now, when you visit CNN.com or Bostonglobe.com, car ads start popping up. It’s harmless but a little creepy. And if you get cookies at a site that knows your true identity — Facebook, perhaps, or Google — those companies will soon know everything about you that matters.
So there are simple programs that plug into a browser and automatically reject tracking cookies. The first one I tried was Ghostery, a free download at Ghostery.com. Designed for multiple browsers — like Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox, Opera, Google Inc.’s Chrome, and Apple Inc.’s Safari — Ghostery also works on Apple’s iOS devices like the iPad tablet computer and iPhone. It installs in just a few seconds. The only evidence that it is working is a little window displaying the names of advertising companies whose cookies it has just blocked.
A rival freebie called Do Not Track Plus (DNT+), from Abine Inc. of Boston, is just as simple to use but a bit more comprehensive. DNT+ works with Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer. When it is running, you see nothing, unless you tap a button on your browser’s toolbar. Then you get a breakdown of which companies are watching you.
DNT+ seemed to identify more trackers than Ghostery. While Ghostery picked up multiple trackers from three different companies when I visited the car site motortrend.com, for example, DNT+ found 11 separate tracking cookies, including a vitally important one not listed by Ghostery: Facebook. Many people don’t know about Facebook Connect, a program that lets the giant social network track your Internet surfing when you’re not on Facebook’s own site. Ghostery gave Facebook Connect a free pass on several sites I tried, but it did block it when I tried it on a different computer.
For even greater privacy, you can try a service that offers the Internet version of silent running. Every online device has a true numerical Internet address that can be used to identify a person, or figure out his location in the real world. Cocoon is a browser add-on that routes all your Web activities through the company’s own remote servers, thereby hiding your true address. Companies can shower you with tracking cookies, but Cocoon ensures that the advertisers will never know who you really are or where you really live.
Like DNT+, Cocoon lets you lock out Facebook Connect, though you must remember to switch this feature on. It also lets you generate temporary e-mail addresses that you can use when signing up for various online services. If you change your mind, or start getting spam e-mails, just delete the temporary address. Your true e-mail address is never compromised.
Cocoon is available for Firefox, for Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, and a beta-test version is now available for Internet Explorer. It’s free, if you don’t mind putting up with ads that appear on the screen at odd moments. Or you can pay $4.99 a month for an ad-free version.
Even if you don’t use the Internet, it may still be using you. A host of companies like Intelius.com and PublicRecordsNow.com collect your personal data and resell it online.
So Abine, the makers of DNT+, offers DeleteMe, a service that can have your personal data deleted from about 20 prominent data brokers. Getting rid of those records is not a pushbutton process; it mainly involves sending letters to the companies, who’ve agreed to delete people’s files on request.
Anybody can make the same request for themselves, but it’s a tedious, cumbersome process. DeleteMe does it for you, and checks back every three months to ensure your data doesn’t get reposted. A DeleteMe subscription costs $99 per year.
Countless Internet firms earn their keep by spying on the rest of us. At the risk of undermining our fragile economy, I say we make it tougher for them.